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3 Ways To Prevent Child Marriages By Bringing A Change In The Community’s Mindset

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By Chaitali Sheth

Global studies and research provide clear evidence about the long-lasting effects of a disaster or conflict on socio-economically disadvantaged communities and populations. These include — loss of life, loss of livelihoods, homelessness and displacement, extreme violence against women, girls, and the elderly, insufficient support from the state, reduced capacity to respond and adapt, and severe post-traumatic stress. All of this further perpetuates marginalisation and poverty.

When Covid-19 hit India last year, we recognised that the little progress we had made in protecting the rights of our children, especially girls, over the last decade was already being (or would be) destroyed as families began experiencing the effects of the pandemic.

Fairly early, almost at the onset of the pandemic, there was an understanding and acknowledgement of the devastating consequences that the pandemic would have on girls from marginalised communities for a long time to come. One such dire consequence is child marriage.

a young bride in jodhpur
Representational image

It is a well-known fact that even before Covid-19, girls in India were forced into child marriage, with one in every three child brides of the world living in India. But there has been a surge in child marriages today, and the reason and data for that has been widely documented. For example, according to Childline, there was a 17% increase in distress calls linked to early marriage of girls in June and July 2020 compared to 2019. This surge in child marriage is due to the belief that it will salvage the family from financial distress.

More than a year into the pandemic, our government systems continue to be overburdened, schools remain shut and economic stress seems endless. The crisis of child marriage deserves renewed attention and urgency. But is that enough?

Responding to child marriage can be simplified into a range of approaches and strategies. But, at Aangan, our experience shows us that the quiet, yet unwavering, leadership that our women child protection volunteers have demonstrated in the midst of this crisis is the common influence across every story, case or situation.

Over the last year, through our women child protection volunteers who have been trained to protect and prevent harm and exploitation to children, we have been able to avert 481 child marriages across five states. Through an analysis of the trends and cases where marriages were successfully delayed, we advocate for three key strategies that our child protection volunteers implemented and that have worked for us.

1. Build Social Capital

We believe that the work of preventing harm cannot happen amidst a crisis, particularly when systems — both formal and informal — are falling apart or unresponsive. This belief is core to our approach and therefore, the key focus is to facilitate and build a support system with a diverse range of stakeholders around volunteers, all of whom are working towards a common goal.

The volunteer knows very well that she cannot do this work alone. With the slowly growing safety net of individuals, the community then begins to see the role of the volunteers as a partner, a problem-solver and a negotiator who is working not just in the best interest of the child but the entire family, and in instances, even the community.

The families and the community see that the work of the volunteers is not just limited to times of crisis, is constant and ongoing. This strong social capital that is carefully built over time plays a significant role in addressing sensitive issues such as child marriage when they arise. We have observed that:

  • A strong safety system ensures that there are more ears and eyes on the ground — they began to work like ‘whisper circles’. In over 93% of the cases, volunteers received information on preparation of impending marriages taking place through informal and indirect reports by community members. When members in the ‘whisper circles’ heard rumours about child marriages being planned, these warning signs were communicated to child protection volunteers early, ensuring that action can be taken in a timely way.
  • For our volunteers, the phrase “It takes a village…” is at the crux of their work. But it goes beyond just building a support system. It ensures collective ownership and an understanding of the responsibility each stakeholder has is towards keeping children safe. In 68% of the cases, volunteers worked with other stakeholders in delaying planned marriages. For example, ASHA workers and Anganwadi sevikas were trained on simple ways to detect early warning signs of a marriage being planned. In Bharatpur, Rajasthan, commitment from men were elicited, resulting in 167 fathers and 62 brothers saying that they would not push their daughters and sisters into early marriages. In Patna, Bihar, village mukhiyas (village heads) and ward members pressured pandits (priests) and wedding decorators to stop providing their services at weddings involving minors.

The social capital that is built on the foundations of support, collaboration and action is now integral to the prevention of early marriages and will continue beyond the current crisis.

close up of a young girl in bridal clothes
Representational image

2. Leverage The Power Of Dialogue And Negotiation

Dialogue, conversations, repeated discussions, negotiations — all of the above were key factors in the success of delaying marriages. In 89% of the cases, volunteers used dialogue and negotiation as the first step and main strategy in changing the family’s decision. In seven cases, the girls themselves — who were also trained to have these conversations — were successful in delaying their own or their sibling’s marriage.

While one may argue that this is time-consuming and requires skill, the conversation allows for an understanding of the underlying issues, fears and structural problems, for example financial constraints being faced by the family. And with this knowledge, women volunteers are in a better position to offer alternative solutions and present viable options.

Some basic strategies that women volunteers use while negotiating with families are:

  • Identifying the main decision-maker in the family and negotiating with them directly.
  • Spotting an ally within the family who can be cultivated as a supporter.
  • Leveraging the support of the most influential member in the community, most often an elderly male member who can help with negotiation. In 30% of the cases, women volunteers sought support from credible men in the community who were able to negotiate better with the fathers.
  • Although most parents know about the laws against child marriage, many do not believe that officials will take it seriously. For instance, in Pakur, Jharkhand, parents of a young girl were told about a case in an adjacent village where police had intervened and arrested the parents and in-laws of the bride. Sharing cases where legal action has been taken warns parents against ignoring the laws.

3. Enhance Girls’ Own Preparedness To Self-Report

The protection of children is not their own responsibility. It is the responsibility of the formal government system and adults in their lives to keep them safe. Having said that, in order to empower girls and build their agency, it is crucial that they have the knowledge, tools and skills necessary to remain safe.

Through attending monthly sessions on basic laws and rights, ways to identify warning signs of harm, strategies to stay safe, systems and people to access, girls themselves are in a stronger position to seek support in a situation when they are faced with child marriage. The sessions go beyond awareness-building. These sessions prepare the girls to respond and act when faced with a difficult situation.

For example, in 8% of cases, the girls at risk reported the planning of their marriages themselves to volunteers. Whilst self-reporting is exceedingly difficult for a girl to do, knowing what she can do it and whom she can reach out to gives her the voice she most often needs.

No doubt, the above strategies are challenging and even harder to implement in a moment of crisis, but the stakes are too high for our girls and preventing harm before it occurs is crucial and imperative.

About the author: Chaitali Sheth has been COO at Aangan since 2013. She has a masters in management of training and development from the University of Edinburgh and has spent more than two decades in the development sector working with a diverse range of organisations, both nationally and internationally. While her core strengths lie in building strong operational and management systems, she is deeply passionate about child rights, social justice and empowerment of marginalised groups.

Note: The article was originally published on India Development Review.

Featured image courtesy of BMN Network | Flickr
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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